- Waste Connections may have discriminated against a collection truck driver on the basis of race when it decided to fire him in 2015, the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last week. This reversed a prior summary judgment for the employer in district court.
- The employee, Jimmy Haynes, had texted his manager 45 minutes before the beginning of a shift that he was sick, but the manager didn't see the text until after Haynes' scheduled shift had begun. Haynes was fired for "job abandonment" and decided to sue, alleging Waste Connections had fired him because of his race and retaliated against him, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- The lower court granted summary judgment for Waste Connections, finding that Haynes failed to establish "an appropriate comparator" who received less severe discipline for comparable misconduct. Waste Connections also alleged Haynes was not satisfactorily performing his job at the time of the firing, and that he failed to establish pretext. The 4th Circuit reversed, saying the lower court erred when it decided a white Waste Connections employee — who was managed by the same supervisor and who had committed more infractions than Haynes, who is black — was an inappropriate comparator.
The ruling is a notable loss for Waste Connections, one of the largest publicly-traded employers in the North American waste industry. In addition to the overall discrimination finding, the case also included relevant details on employee performance standards.
The panel said Haynes didn't need to demonstrate that he was a "perfect or model employee" to show that his performance was satisfactory. "Rather, a plaintiff must show only that he was qualified for the job and that he was meeting his employer's legitimate expectations," the court said, and Haynes submitted evidence that, prior to a performance review shortly before the firing, his manager had said that "everything looks good" and that Haynes had "nothing to worry about."
This decision also serves as a potential reminder of the importance of specific communication procedures.
Call-in communication procedures in particular can be tricky — especially if managers bend the rules, Eric B. Meyer, partner at Fisher Broyles, wrote in a blog post on Monday. According to the court, Haynes showed that he had previously communicated with his manager via text, despite Waste Connections's insistence that Haynes's notice violated company policy. Managers who don't consistently follow company call-in procedures may present a legal risk to the organization — an issue that may be further complicated by research showing that younger workers, in particular, prefer texting their subordinates.
Documentation also emerged as a discussion point in the court's ruling. Despite job abandonment being cited as the reason for Haynes's firing, his termination paperwork stated the cause to be "violation of rules," according to the court. The company's own policy defines job abandonment as "three days, no call and no show," which is inconsistent with Haynes's conduct, the court noted.
The discrepancy was dismissed by the lower court, which held Haynes's manager "did not mean the job abandonment policy but was instead apparently referring to his own definition of job abandonment," the 4th Circuit said. However, the circuit rebutted this reasoning: "Given that [the manager] had consulted with the human resources department, a genuine dispute of fact exists as to whether it was reasonable [...] to use that specific terminology without conforming to [Waste Connections]'s own definition of 'job abandonment' or whether this represents an inconsistency and evidence of pretext."
The alleged fact pattern offers some insight on discipline in the workplace. Employers must ensure that discipline is doled out evenly; experts previously told HR Dive that HR can both train managers to adhere to formalized procedures and give disciplinary actions that seem out of place a second look.